Rescuing a lost battalion

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US veterans Ito Susumu and Erwin Blonder recall how Japanese-American soldiers rescued the 'Lost Battalion' of the Texas National Guardsman from behind German lines in the Vosges Mountains during World War II.

MARCO WERMAN: The US military presence on Okinawa dates back to World War Two, so does our next story. It's about a battle that took place in October 1944. A US infantry battalion broke through German lines in northeastern France. The men, mostly members of the Texas National Guard found themselves surrounded by Nazi forces. They were dubbed the Lost Battalion. Many thought they were goners. A combat team of mainly Japanese-American soldiers was sent to rescue them. A fierce battle ensued, there were heavy casualties, but the Lost Battalion was indeed rescued. I spoke to two veterans of the battle. First Lieutenant Erwin Blonder, a member of the Lost Battalion. He told me how his unit ended up behind enemy lines.

ERWIN BLONDER: We were lured by the Germans and trapped. They knew we were coming. We were about 280 men, and after the first day there, we were surrounded by the Germans. We had no way of getting out. One of the companies tried to leave the area, and they were captured by the Germans, and we never heard from them again, then leaving us about 220 men. We had no food, no water. We had a problem. We were told by the divisions to try to break out. We decided we wouldn't leave because we had wounded with us, and we didn't wanna leave them there. And we told the Americans that they would have to come and rescue us. But we were being attacked by the Germans. They would throw in artillery shells into our area every night, and during the day we'd get these tree bursts, which were horrible, but we were able to dig in deep enough in our foxholes to protect ourselves. It was cold, rainy, damp, it was a nightmare.

MARCO WERMAN: Well let's turn to the rescue team. Lieutenant [SOUNDS LIKE] Ito Susumu, your combat team, the 442nd regiment was sent into rescue Lieutenant Blonder's regiment. You, like most others in your regiment, we should say, were serving your country despite the fact that

your entire family was forced into an interment camp here in the United States, and that was the case for most of those in your combat team, right?

ITO SUSUMU: Yes, it was for half of us. The other half came from Hawaii, and they were very young. Many of them were 18, 19 year olds. I was a [INDISCERNIBLE] sergeant, but that was very routine and boring. So when an opportunity came up to join the instrument section, which is involved in directing artillery fire, I volunteered for this. And casualties were enormous, but at the time, I thought, this is what war is like, and this is what I'd asked for.

ERWIN BLONDER: All I remember is being cold, wet, dreary. I got trench foot when I was up there. I had to be carried off the battlefield ?cause we were not able to change our socks, or to change our clothing. It was just miserable. However, the morale was such that we decided we would never give. We wouldn't surrender, and we would, we would really probably fought to the last man if we had to.

MARCO WERMAN: And Lieutenant Ito, I mean, we have to say that it is something of a miracle that you survived this. I mean, you were the one who went up on the front lines before everybody else, kind of marking positions and where the infantry from the 442nd behind you would fire.

ITO SUSUMU: Yes, we could hear machine guns. I could hear Germans shouting at us when they pinned us down to surrender. ?Hands up. Hands up.? They would say. But you had no idea where they were. Even at this very moment when I think about it, when I see a dark forest, heavily wooded, and as dank and dark, even on a sunny day, I get goose bumps all over me. I don't recall like having goose bumps during the war, but I certainly get them now.

MARCO WERMAN: Lieutenant Ito Susumu, you went in, you rescued Lieutenant Blonder's regiment. How did it end? What was kind of the finale of the battle?

ITO SUSUMU: Well, it was fierce infantrymen. We had tanks, but they couldn't see their targets either. It was mostly the riflemen who went from tree to tree, and finally overran the last of the resistance. I saw many of the 36 divisions coming out of foxholes. Their foxholes were the deepest ones I've ever seen. But they would come out of these holes, blurry and wary looking. They seemed almost stunned to me.

ERWIN BLONDER: The important thing about this whole operation was, they went through hell to get to us. They had to crawl in their hands and knees, crawl up this mountain. And when you realize what they went through, the prejudice, how they wanted to prove they were Americans, and to fight as Americans, they were the most decorated outfit they US army's ever had. I believe they had about 28 metal of honor winners, which really were not given to them until President Clinton did this in 1990. You know, the sad thing about this, this particular action got a lot of publicity in newspapers in the United States when it happened. Not one word was said that we were rescued by the 442nd Japanese American combat team. That's the kind of prejudice we had in those days.

MARCO WERMAN: What did they say, the media just said [INDISCERNIBLE].

ERWIN BLONDER: [OVERLAPPING] They didn't mention anything. They mentioned, they just said we were rescued. They mentioned, never mentioned the 442nd, never mentioned they were rescued by the Japanese Americans.

MARCO WERMAN: Lieutenant Ito, if I were Japanese American during World War Two, and I got called up for this, I think one of two things would've gone through my mind. I might have felt as though I had to prove I was a good American. Or, maybe I would've been angered that suddenly I got called up and they're gonna stick me on the frontline in this kind of sacrificial lamb move? Did either of those two things go through your head?

ITO SUSUMU: No, I did not experience with any of my colleagues any reservation, resentment, or feelings of being discriminated against, although it probably were. But since we in the United States are a land of immigrants, except for the Native Americans, the barriers between groups are breaking down, so maybe next thousand or two thousand years, I see the future as an integration of the society with perhaps much, much less ethnicity groups.

MARCO WERMAN: Well, a 1,000, 2,000 years is certainly a long time. Let's just talk about 65 years. I'm wondering if you see a parallel between Japanese Americans and Muslim Americans today. Japanese Americans in World War Two, and Muslim Americans today, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ITO SUSUMU: Yes, definitely. I can see where the Muslim Americans now are discriminated against. Their position is quite parallel to the Japanese Americans in World War Two, but I feel confident that this will be overcome, and that we'll accept Muslims as equally good Americans. And this may take a few years, but I see that it's coming. I hope it's in my lifetime. [LAUGHS]

MARCO WERMAN: I hope so too.

ERWIN BLONDER: Boy. Susumu's story is a remarkable story. I admire him for what he's done, and I think everybody should admire all the Japanese Americans who really came back home

and made a life for themselves, in spite of all the prejudice. They couldn't even go back to the West Coast and get back their homes after the war. It was just a shameful block in our history.

MARCO WERMAN: And Susumu of course is the gentleman sitting with us here in the studio, in Boston.

ERWIN BLONDER: [OVERLAPPING] Susumu's a man sitting with you.


ERWIN BLONDER: I'm six foot four, and Susumu's about what? Five foot four, Susumu.

ITO SUSUMU: No, I've shrunk to about five feet two.

ERWIN BLONDER: I've shrunk to five feet two. [LAUGHS] Anyhow, we're the long and the short of it.

MARCO WERMAN: [LAUGHS] Alright. One way to put it. Lieutenant Ito Susumu, and Lieutenant Erwin Blonder, thank you very much for taking the time to tell us your stories today.

ITO SUSUMU: Happy to be here.

ERWIN BLONDER: Thank you. Thank you. Susumu good-bye.

ITO SUSUMU: So long.